War on Iraq

War Psychiatry and Iraq Atrocities: How Killing Becomes a Reflex

Modern American military training methods can turn off the switch that controls a human being's inherent aversion to killing.
In 1971, Lt. William Calley was sentenced to life in prison for his role in the massacre of some 500 civilians in the Vietnamese hamlet of My Lai. In response to Calley's conviction, Vietnam Veterans Against the War (VVAW) convened the "Winter Soldier Investigation." Over a three-day period, more than a hundred veterans testified to atrocities they had witnessed committed by U.S. troops against Vietnamese civilians. Their expressed intention was to demonstrate that My Lai was not unique, that it was instead the inevitable result of U.S. policy. It was a travesty of justice, they claimed, to focus blame on the soldiers when it was the policy makers, McNamara, Bundy, Rostow, Johnson, LeMay, Nixon and the others who were truly responsible for the war crimes that had been committed.

In 2004, the release of the Abu Grahib photographs broke the unforgivable silence in the mainstream press about atrocities committed by American soldiers in Iraq. Haditha followed, then Mahmoudiyah, Ishaqi, and at this writing, countless other instances of savage, homicidal violence directed at civilians have been reported. The July 30 issue of the Nation included an article, "The Other War," by Chris Hedges and Laila Al-Arian, which used interviews with 50 combat veterans to make the case that American soldiers are using indiscriminate and often lethal force in their dealings with Iraqi civilians. These veterans, the authors report, have "returned home deeply disturbed by the disparity between the reality of the war and the way it is portrayed by the U.S. government and American media." I would wager that they are more deeply disturbed by the reality itself than the way the media reports it, but certainly government and media distortions are another layer of betrayal. In a letter protesting that article, Paul Rieckhoff, president of Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America, made an argument parallel to that of VVAW, namely that "(a)nyone who wants to write a serious piece about the ethical lapses of the U.S. troops should start and end the article by putting blame where it belongs -- on the politicians who sent our troops to war unprepared and without a clear mission" (the Nation, 7/13/07).

I'm not suggesting that American soldiers take no responsibility for their actions. Like Rieckhoff, I would argue that we must balance outrage at criminal and sadistic acts with the insistence that we "guard against blaming this new generation of veterans for the terrible and tragic circumstances" that led to those acts. And I agree that, once again, the architects have been given a free pass and that the soldiers, who are doing exactly what they have been trained to do, are taking the blame. But I want to focus on an aspect of the situation that is never addressed in the mainstream media, and not often enough elsewhere: specifically that American troops are trained to act in criminal and sadistic ways.

Military training has been part of the experience of millions of young American men since the Revolutionary War. Prior to the Vietnam era, however, that training consisted largely of practicing military skills and learning to manage military equipment. It is only in the last half century that training has evolved into an entirely new phenomenon that makes use of the principles of operant conditioning to overcome what studies done over the last century have consistently demonstrated, namely, that healthy human beings have an inherent aversion to killing others of their own species.

Operant conditioning holds that organisms, including human beings, move through their environment rather haphazardly until they encounter a reinforcing stimulus. The experience of that stimulus becomes associated in memory with the behavior that immediately preceded it. In other words, a behavior is followed by a consequence, and the nature of the consequence, reward or punishment, modifies the organism's tendency to repeat the behavior. Today's recruits are intentionally and methodically subjected to a training regimen that is explicitly designed to turn them into reflexive killers. And it is very effective. It is also carefully concealed. The military would prefer to keep their methods out of sight because of the moral and ethical discussions, not to mention the legal restraints, which public scrutiny and constitutional debate might impose. Or so I would like to believe.

War Psychiatry, the army's textbook on combat trauma, notes that "pseudospeciation, the ability of humans and some other primates to classify certain members of their own species as 'other,' can neutralize the threshold of inhibition so they can kill conspecifics." Modern military training has developed carefully sequenced and choreographed elements of what many would call brainwashing to disconnect recruits from their civilian identities. The values, standards and behaviors they have absorbed over a lifetime from their families, schools, religions and communities are scorned and punished. Using cruelty, humiliation, degradation and cognitive disorientation, recruits are reprogrammed with an entirely new set of learned responses. Every aspect of combat behavior is rehearsed until response becomes reflexive. Operant conditioning has vastly improved the efficacy of American soldiers, at least by military standards. It has proven to be a reliable way to turn off the switch that controls a soldier's inherent aversion to killing. American soldiers do kill more often and more efficiently. Lt. Col. Dave Grossman, author of On Killing, calls this form of training "psychological warfare, [but] psychological warfare conducted not upon the enemy, but upon one's own troops."

The psychological warfare that is being conducted on today's recruits is a truly disturbing indication of the worldview of our leadership, both military and political. The group identity they are drilling into these kids, the "insider" identity, is based on explicit contempt not only for the declared enemy of the week, but for the entire civilian population, with a special emphasis on women and homosexuals. In an army that is now 15 percent female and who knows (don't ask, don't tell) what percentage gay, drill instructors still rely on labels like "girl" or "pussy," "lady" or "fairy" to humiliate, degrade and ultimately exact conformity. Recruits are drilled with marching chants that privilege their relationships with their weapons over their relationships with women ("you used to be my beauty queen, now I love my M-16"), or that overtly conflate sex and violence ("this is my rifle, this is my gun; this is for fighting, this is for fun."). Aside from teaching these kids to quash their innate feelings about killing in general, they are being programmed with a distorted version of not only what it means to be a man, but of what it means to be a citizen. To ascend to the warrior class, one must learn to despise and distrust all that is not military. Chaim Shatan, a psychiatrist who worked with Vietnam-era veterans, described this transformative process as deliberate, as opposed to capricious, sadism, "whose purpose is to inculcate obedience to command."

There are any number of ways that modern training methods both support violence, aggression and obedience and help to disconnect a reflex action from its moral, ethical, spiritual or social implications, but one of the best illustrations of this process is the marching chants, or "jodies," as they are known in the services. "Jody" is the derivative of an African-American work song about Joe de Grinder, a devilish ladies' man who is at home making time with the soldier's girlfriend while the soldier is stuck in the war ("ain't no use in going home; Jody's on your telephone"). According to the military, jodies build morale while distracting attention from monotonous, often strenuous, exertion. The following, originally a product of the Vietnam era, has been resurrected for training purposes in every war since and is an example of the kind of morale building that has been judged appropriate to the formation of an American soldier:

Shell the town and kill the people.
Drop the napalm in the square.
Do it on a Sunday morning
While they're on their way to prayer.

Aim your missiles at the schoolhouse.
See the teacher ring the bell.
See the children's smiling faces
As their schoolhouse burns to hell

Throw some candy to the children.
Wait till they all gather round.
Then you take your M-16 now
And mow the little fuckers down.


Thankfully, the brainwashing has not yet been developed that will override the humanity of most American soldiers. According to the troops interviewed in the Nation, the kind of psychotic brutality described in the marching cadence above is indulged by only a minority. Still, they described atrocities committed against civilians as "common" -- and almost never punished. As multiple deployments become the norm, however, and as more scrambled psyches are sent back into combat instead of into treatment, it is frightening to consider that the brainwashing may yet prevail. Given the training to which these soldiers have been subjected and the chaotic conditions in which they find themselves, it is inevitable that more will succumb to fear and rage and frustration. They will inevitably be overwhelmed by cumulative doses of horror, and they will lose control of their judgment and their compassion. Thirty-six years ago, American veterans tried to cut through the smoke and mirrors of the official response to civilian atrocities, the version that scapegoated soldiers and ignored those who gave the orders. As then Lt. John Kerry put it, "We could hold our silence; we could not tell what went on in Vietnam, but we feel (that it is) not reds, and not redcoats (that threaten this country), but the crimes which we are committing." The soldiers who, following orders, have run over children in the road rather than slow down their convoy will never be the same again, regardless of whether government and the media tell the truth. Nor will the soldiers manning checkpoints who shoot, as ordered, and kill entire families who failed to stop, only to learn later that no one had bothered to share with them that the American signal to stop -- a hand held up, palm towards the oncoming vehicle -- to an Iraqi means, "Hello, come here." I have heard a number of the men cited in the Nation article speak about their combat experiences, and they are tormented by what they saw and did. They want to tell their stories, not because they are looking for absolution, but because they want to believe that Americans want to know. But neither are they willing to take the blame.

They have already carried home the psychic wounds and the dangerous reflexive habits of violence that will always diminish their lives and their relationships. In return, they are hoping we will listen to them this time when they ask us to look a little harder, dig a little deeper, use a little more discernment. Or have we already arrived at a point in our collective moral development when, as Shatan predicted, "Like Eichmann, we … consider evil to be banal and routine?"
Penny Coleman is the widow of a Vietnam veteran who took his own life after coming home. Her latest book, Flashback: Posttraumatic Stress Disorder, Suicide and the Lessons of War, was released on Memorial Day, 2006. Her blog is called Flashback
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